Synesius, Letter 054

Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

The addressee of the letter that is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, was Synesius' brother, who lived in Ptolemais. About a quarter of the entire correspondence was directed to Euoptius: letters 51 (394), 55, 56, 54, 136, 135, 110 (all 396), the long letter 4 about a shipwreck in 397, 120, 104, 113 (401), 3, 35, 39, 32, 52, 65, 92, 106, 114, 109, 36 (all in 402), 127, 50, 18 (404), 125, 132 (405), 108, 107, 122, 95 (407), 53, 82, 84, 85, 86, 105 (409), 8, 87, 89 (411).

Letter 54, written in 396, throws some light on the rivalry between the philosophical schools of Athens and Alexandria. Cf. Letter 136.

Ancient text

Letter 54: Athens

[1] To his Brother

A great number of people, either private individuals or priests, by moulding dreams, which they call revelations, seem likely to do me harm when I am awake, if I do not happen with all speed to visit sacred Athens. Whenever, then, you happen to meet a skipper sailing for the Piraeus, write to me, as it is there I shall receive my letters.

[2] I shall gain not only this by my voyage to Athens - an escape from my present evils, but also a relief from doing reverence to the learning of those who come back from Athens. They differ in no wise from us ordinary mortals. They do not understand Aristotle or Plato better than we, and nevertheless they go about among us as demi-gods among mules, because they have seen the Academy, the Lyceum,note and the PoikilĂȘ where Zeno gave his lectures on philosophy. However, the PoikilĂȘ no longer deserves its name, for the proconsul has taken away all the pictures, and has thus humiliated these men's pretensions to learning.